Guantanamo Bay and the champagne anti-imperialists

The campaign against Camp X-Ray has been hijacked by moral posturing.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The Camp X-Ray prisons at Guantanamo Bay – where 500 men are being held in legal limbo, still unsure whether they are prisoners of war, ‘illegal combatants’ or what – are a common disgrace. They should be shut down, dismantled, sold for scrap, and their inhabitants set free immediately. More to the point, we should challenge the idea that these individuals pose a threat to civilisation and everything that America and the West hold dear, and that they therefore must be locked up indefinitely and even have their toothbrushes sawn in half. That is the beginning and the end of my political position on Guantanamo Bay.

And that is why I won’t be signing up any time soon to the fashionable public campaign against Camp X-Ray. That campaign – whose adherents include everyone from the Archbishop of Canterbury, to every bicycle-riding liberals’ favourite bicycle-riding newsreader, Jon Snow, to the not-especially principled publicity supremo Max Clifford (who reportedly scored high-profile newspaper interviews for some of the Brits freed from Guantanamo) – is less about getting the prison shut down, and even less about challenging the war on terror that sustains it, than it is about demonstrating the campaigners’ own whiter-than-white credentials to the watching world. Wondering about the strange goings-on at Guantanamo has become a kind of pornography for the chattering classes, and chastising Camp X-Ray a shortcut to showing that you are a good and noble person. It is public protest as narcissistic preening, and anyone interested in challenging the ‘war on terror’ should steer well clear of it.

Guantanamo Bay is everywhere. Even as post-war Afghanistan remains a mess and post-war Iraq becomes an ever-more vacuous and violent state, virtually the only big public debate about Bush and Blair’s military shenanigans focuses on Camp X-Ray. That is weird for two reasons. First, we know what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq but we are uncertain as to what is happening in Camp X-Ray, which is a highly secretive and closed-off prison; second, Camp X-Ray is a byproduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a symptom rather than the cause of American and British military interventionism.

In some ways, it is precisely the secretive nature of Camp X-Ray and the fact that it has become a kind of separate entity, dislocated from its origins in the ‘war on terror’, that makes it attractive to the campaigners: it allows them to indulge a sense of moral righteousness and outrage without having to think too hard about hard facts or the messy political business of taking a public stand against Western interventionism.

Call me a cynical old workerist, but I am constantly struck by the kind of people associated with the campaign against Camp X-Ray. They are, in a nutshell, the Islington dinner-party set playing at international politics; not so much anti-imperialists as champagne anti-imperialists. Consider Enemy Combatant by Moazzam Begg, the Briton who was held at Guantanamo for three years, which was published this week. It is co-written by Victoria Brittain, a research associate at the London School of Economics and former associate foreign editor of the Guardian. In the Acknowledgements Begg describes Brittain as ‘one of those people who cares’ and thanks, among others, Pat Kavanagh, the literary agent and wife of celebrated novelist Julian Barnes, and Ronan Bennett, the former Irish republican turned playwright, novelist and ant-GM campaigner. On the back of the book there is a glowing (if somewhat illiterate) endorsement from Jon Snow, who says: ‘From Wordsworth and Shakespeare to the illegal inhumanity of the war on terror – if those responsible read only one book about what they have tolerated and done in our name, this must be it.’ That doesn’t really make sense (who are ‘those responsible’ and ‘they’, and what does he mean ‘from Wordsworth to the war on terror’?), but you get the gist: Begg’s book is a Wordsworthian, even Shakespearean, indictment of inhumanity etc etc.

Begg also gave a talk at the Institute of Contemporary Arts this week, the uber-trendy and apparently daring arts centre in central London. He was on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week on Monday, where his views not only about Guantanamo Bay but also about American arrogance and politics were treated with almost reverential respect. He featured on the BBC News website, under the heading ‘Ask Moazzam Begg’, where readers could pose a question for him about his experiences. Meanwhile, Michael Winterbottom’s film The Road to Guantanamo, which tells the story of the ‘Tipton Three’, three young men from the Midlands who spent two years in Guantanamo, was shown on Channel 4 last night. It has already won, in February, the Silver Bear for Direction Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The Guantanamo Brits have been adopted by liberal filmmakers and opinion-setters as symbols of victimhood and goodness, British decency in the face of America’s moral turpitude. The front cover of Begg’s book has a photo of him sitting on his own on a hilltop, with his back to the camera, looking down on the town of Ostrazac in Bosnia, which he visited apparently as an aid worker for beleaguered Bosnian Muslims in 1994. The picture is intended to illustrate this British Muslim’s brave and singular stand against oppression, the fact that he is, in the words of one journalist, ‘a good man, a helper’ (1). The Guardian’s Saturday supplement, Weekend, recently ran a front-cover interview with Begg, under the headline ‘What Guantanamo did to me’, with a picture of him looking a little sad, his eyes cast downward, away from the camera: it is the same pose that was perfected by Princess Diana. Former Labour MP Tony Benn has contrasted Begg’s goodness with America’s irrationality, describing Begg as ‘a devoted family man…sustained by his deep Muslim faith’ (2). Watching The Road to Guantanamo on Channel 4 last night, I was struck by how the voiceover woman introducing the film talked about ‘our lads’ who ended up in Camp X-Ray. It used to be British soldiers who were referred to as ‘our boys’; now it seems that three young Asians from Tipton are ‘our lads’ on the frontline.

These campaigners are basically doing the flip-reverse of what the Bush administration has done. Bush infamously said of the Guantanamo detainees, ‘The only thing I know for certain is that these are bad people’. So US officials may not have sufficient evidence convincingly to convict any of them of a war crime, but they just know, instinctively, in their guts, that they are wicked individuals. The anti-Guantanamo campaigners respond by saying that they are good people, upstanding citizens who have been wronged by the beastly Bush administration. Where Bush has turned the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay into symbols of evil, his opponents discuss them as symbols of victimhood or resistance. Bush made them into celebrity terrorists, evidence that the world faces a great threat from afar; his opponents made them into celebrity martyrs, living proof that American power is corrupt and degraded. So in place of a serious political debate about American power, terrorism or Afghanistan we have a situation where the Bush administration points to the detainees at Camp X-Ray as physical evidence of evil while its critics effectively use detainees as ventriloquists’ dummies to mouth their criticisms of Bush. Both sides are avoiding the real issues in favour of pushing forth some bedraggled prisoners or ex-prisoners from Camp X-Ray to do their dirty work for them.

Being against Guantanamo is now a moral posture rather than a serious or considered political position. I mean, even Kofi Annan is opposed to it, as are various British ministers. President Bush no doubt wishes it would go away; the Americans announced only yesterday that they were shutting Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, in response to the bad publicity it has brought them these past couple of years. There is nothing remotely controversial, or especially challenging, about taking this kind of stand against Camp X-Ray right now.

Indeed, campaigners against Camp X-Ray have turned it from a political issue into a morality play. And as with all morality plays they can sometimes play fast and loose with the facts. For example, in The Road to Guantanamo, we are told that the Tipton Three, who were in Pakistan for a wedding, decided to venture into Afghanistan in October 2001, a few weeks after 9/11, to offer aid and assistance to the Afghan people. Apparently various individuals they met kept assuring them that the Americans were unlikely to bomb Afghanistan too heavily and therefore it would be safe (ish) to go there. They are shown in the film having these discussions from 12 October 2001 to 16 October 2001, as they travel by bus and car from Pakistan to Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Unluckily for them, they arrive just as the American bombing starts and they get caught up in what they now refer to as the ‘holiday from hell’.

But hold on. America and Britain’s bombing campaign over Afghanistan started on 7 October 2001, not in mid-October 2001; that would have been a whole week before, according to this film, the Tipton Three decided to venture to Afghanistan. On 7 October there was intense bombing of Taliban and al-Qaeda targets across Afghanistan, including four waves of US-British attacks at ‘the heart of the city of Kandahar’ (3). So if the film’s dates for the Tipton Three’s travel to Afghanistan are correct – even if its dates for the start of the war appear a bit off – then that means they ventured to Kandahar, where most of the Taliban were holed up, over a week into the war. Did they go there to offer aid and assistance to beleaguered Afghans, or for something else? I don’t know. I don’t much care, either. But it is a little difficult to sympathise with three Brits who reportedly travelled to a city that the Taliban considered its capital while the Taliban was being bombed by Western forces; and it is striking that few others have commented on the film’s seemingly confused timeline.

There have been numerous stories of abuse at Guantanamo Bay that have turned out to be unsubstantiated or unfounded. In May 2005 Newsweek ran a story about a Koran being flushed down a toilet by guards at Camp X-Ray, but then retracted it later after its anonymous source said he couldn’t be sure if it was true or not. In June 2005 various newspapers said a guard had urinated on a Koran. It seems that the real incident involved an officer leaving his observation post and going outside to relieve himself, which resulted in some droplets of his piss wafting into an air vent and accidentally landing on a Koran and a prisoner uniform in one of the cells. According to a Pentagon report, ‘The sergeant of the guard responded and immediately relieved the guard [of duty]’, and ‘ensured the detainee received a fresh uniform and a new Koran’ (4).

In January 2005, news outlets around the world reported an Australian lawyer’s claims that his client in Guantanamo Bay had been smeared with a prostitute’s menstrual blood. In the lawyer’s words: ‘One of the prostitutes stood over him naked while he was strapped to the floor and menstruated on him.’ As spiked revealed, the real incident was a little different: it wasn’t a prostitute but an interrogator; she wasn’t naked but was wearing a skirt and top; and she didn’t bleed on the detainee while he was manacled to the floor but allegedly touched him with something that she said was blood, which is now widely believed to have been red ink from a magic marker (see The mystery of the Guantanamo hookers, by Brendan O’Neill). And what became of the story about Guantanamo detainees having their arms and legs amputated? On 12 March 2004, the UK Daily Mirror claimed there had been ‘brutal…amputations of limbs that were more drastic than necessary’ (5). That claim has not been made elsewhere, and little evidence has emerged to back it up.

Also, the claims that Moazzam Begg is a decent Brit and a devoted family man, a wide-eyed innocent in the whole Guantanamo affair, doesn’t quite ring true either. When you read his book you discover that he is at least a wannabe Mujahideen if not an active one and that his wife and young children were often distressed when he ventured to various warzones in the 1990s. He twice visited military training camps in Afghanistan, once in Bosnia, and financially supported ‘foreign fighters’ (that is, the Mujahideen) in Chechnya. Begg went to Afghanistan in 1993, and spent two weeks at a training camp; he says he was only there to observe and did not take part in weapons training. In 1994 he travelled to Bosnia ostensibly to deliver aid to Bosnian Muslims but, he says, with the idea of fighting with the Bosnian Muslim Army ‘at the back of my mind’. He spent weeks with Arab Mujahideen based in Bosnia, but again says he did not train, he merely observed. In 1999 he planned a trip to Chechnya but only got as far as Georgia; however, he has said in an interview: ‘What was taking place in Chechnya – I supported foreign fighters and through financial support but I never took up arms myself.’ (6) And then in 2001 (pre-9/11) he and his family moved to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that the Mujahideen in both Bosnia and Chechnya were and are fairly nasty pieces of work. In Bosnia Arab Mujahideen decapitated Serbs and Croats and harassed local Muslims to become more devout (7). In the Chechen conflicts, whatever you may think of Russia’s various bloody interventions, the Mujahideen have carried out some ghastly acts, from the bombing of apartment blocks in the middle of the night, to suicide bombings at rock concerts, to the Beslan school massacre of 2004 in which over 300 people died, half of them children. These are the kind of people Begg desired to fight with and apparently helped out financially. Does that mean he should be locked in legal limbo in Guantanamo Bay? No. Does it mean he should now be seen as a brave hero against Big Bad America? No. In his book he comes across less as a ‘good man, a helper’ than as something of a narcissistic glory-seeker, often abandoning his family in a bid to become a brave Islamic warrior but never (apparently) quite making it.

Uncomfortable facts seem to have little place in the debate about Guantanamo Bay. Stories about Korans being pissed on and detainees being menstruated on can be taken as good coin, and a man who travelled around the world to support some pretty cut-throat and backward religious mercenaries can become a symbol of decent Britishness. The end result is that even getting the facts about Guantanamo Bay and its inhabitants – much less having the hard political arguments about the prison – can be quite some task.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Guantanamo Bay has become a distraction. The Bush administration cling on to the prison as some kind of physical, tangible proof that there was a point to the disastrous ‘war on terror’, pointing to the prisoners as a symbol of that evil they have been banging on about since 9/11. Critics of the Bush administration speculate or even spread rumours about what is going on in the prison, and embrace all who leave it as if they were brilliant and heroic figures, the ultimate victims. Nowhere is there a debate about Western intervention, war, terrorism or Afghanistan, but instead a clash of empty moral postures.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) ‘Looking for troubles’, Guardian Weekend, 25 February 2006

(2) Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantanamo and Back, Moazzam Begg with Victoria Brittain, Free Press, 2006

(3) Afghanistan wakes after night of intense bombings, CNN, 7 October 2001

(4) Pentagon: Koran defiled, Los Angeles Times, 4 June 2005

(5) See Guantanamo: truth goes down the toilet, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) Interview with Moazzam Begg, Channel 4 News, 24 February 2005

(7) See Al-Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network, Evan Kohlmann, Berg, 2004

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Topics Politics


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